Cecilia Vega has worked in daily news for decades, first as a print reporter for her hometown San Francisco Chronicle, then as an on-air journalist for ABC’s San Francisco affiliate KGO before reaching the national level at ABC News in 2011. She reached one of the pinnacles in journalism two years ago when she was named Chief White House correspondent for ABC News.
But then, something interesting happened: 60 Minutes came calling earlier this year, and the longtime TV newser decided it was time to take a significant leap in her career. So, she accepted the offer, leaving ABC in January and joining CBS and 60 Minutes full-time in mid-March.
For Vega’s first story as a 60 Minutes correspondent, the newsmagazine’s executive producer Bill Owens had the rookie jump right into the deep end.
Vega was tasked with reporting on sperm whales living near the Caribbean island of Dominica. One of the requirements was for Vega to swim with the whales—a leap away from politics indeed.
We spoke with Vega earlier this week about her departure from ABC News, her first impressions of her 60 Minutes colleagues, her first story and the type of person and journalist colleagues and viewers can expect.
Vega’s first 60 Minutes story airs this coming Sunday, May 14, on CBS.
*This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity purposes.
TVNewser: Why did you decide to leave ABC News and the chief White House correspondent role for 60 Minutes? What were those discussions like?
Vega: I think you would probably be pretty hard-pressed to find any journalist on the planet who gets offered a job from 60 Minutes and doesn’t take it. It’s what we dream of doing.
I was at ABC for–if you count KGO [ABC’s San Francisco affiliate], where I started in television, after being a newspaper reporter–I think about 15 years. That’s a really long time. I had the most amazing opportunities; Papal conclaves, I traveled the world, I’ve been at the front row of much history in the past 15 years plus, and it was just time. I’m 46 years old, and it’s time for me to work on a different type of storytelling.
I’ve been doing the daily news for so long. I’ve been covering politics, particularly since Hillary Clinton made her [presidential campaign] announcement in 2015, and rolling straight through to Trump and then straight into Biden, and kind of its nonstop pace of multiple stories a day and banging them out and great opportunities, but it’s time for me to kind of pause and do some longer stories and get out in the world and talk to different people. It just sort of felt like the right time to do this.
What’s the most important thing you learned while working as chief White House correspondent?
Bringing your voice and perspective to that beat really matters in how you do your reporting and tell your stories.
I’ll be really candid with you, I have a very vivid memory of the very first day of covering the Clinton campaign and walking into campaign headquarters, and sitting there and looking around the room and realizing that I didn’t have the same background that a lot of the folks in that room had. I’m not talking about my personal background; I’m talking about my work experience. I hadn’t really covered politics like that before. Folks were talking about maps and polls. I came home and cried to my husband and said, “I don’t know if I can cut it.” I didn’t feel like I understood and fit in with that group.
Over the years and covering that campaign, and then sitting in that front row during the [White House press] briefing, I realized it actually makes me a better reporter to be from the outside. I brought to the briefing the question I knew my mom sitting back home in Oakland, Calif., was asking that day. That’s kind of how I approached covering that White House. Now, that’s just from a personal perspective. I mean, obviously, it’s the age-old, “Don’t let up on the questions,” and all of that, which, of course, is important in covering our democracy. But for me, having the epiphany that being different and approaching that beat from a different way I think it can separate you from the pack enough so that you can get some good stories.
I know you’re still relatively new to the team, but what has surprised you the most about working at 60 Minutes and CBS?
Just walking through the door; the “pinch me” of it. It’s 60 Minutes. I fangirl’d over meeting all of the correspondents to the point that they kind of–I think it was Anderson Cooper who called me out on a Zoom meeting the very first time I met everyone because I kept referring to all of them by their first and last name. I think it was Anderson who said like, “Don’t worry, you’re part of the team now.”
So it’s been that adjustment, but it’s also just been learning and seeing how the sausage is made. My first piece airs this Sunday, and I’ve been deep in edits—deep in writing and in the edit room—and in the tracking booth, and this piece is about 14 minutes. That’s a long time for our business. If I was lucky, I got a minute and 30 seconds on the evening news or on the morning news.
Seeing the best of the craft–the best producers, the most amazing photojournalists, who are the editors and who are all such a crucial part of this team, you realize that’s why the 60 Minutes pieces are so smart and so beautiful.
Did you have a favorite 60 Minutes correspondent or a specific 60 Minutes story that really stuck with you growing up?
Ed Bradley for sure was someone who I grew up watching and admiring. But all of them; even when you say that I think of Mike Wallace and the questions and the chases he would do. Lesley Stahl, who was just brilliant in her interviews. Her Trump interviews are a masterclass. Again, I might sound like I’m completely fangirling. Scott Pelley is one of the most beautiful writers in our business. So, all of that. It’s still so wild to me that I get to have an office down the hall from all of these guys now.
Tell us about the story we’re going to see from you this week. Why sperm whales?
That’s exactly the question I asked when Bill Owens, our EP, said, “How about sperm whales?” I said, “Come on. I’m a White House correspondent. What is this?” (laughing)
So, I didn’t have the guts to tell Bill right out of the gate when he said, “Hey, how about sperm whales?” that I’m actually terrified of even snorkeling. You’re going to see me and the team in the water with these massive mammals. It was the most terrifying experience and the most amazing experience I’ve ever had. It was truly both of those things.
The story is really important. Aside from being visually beautiful and this wild ride, we go to the Caribbean island of Dominica, where there is a very unique population of sperm whales, hundreds of them live year-round, and they’re under threat from plastic, noise pollution and ship strikes. So, we go down to this beautiful island that was just ravaged by Hurricane Maria, and there is a National Geographic Explorer that we go with, who’s an expert in this world and is trying to work with the leaders in the country of Dominica to create this marine reserve to protect these whales.
I’ve been working on this piece for weeks, if not a month, and you could pop quiz me on sperm whales, and I would blow your mind! They’re fascinating creatures—the way they sleep in this vertical position. This particular group of whales in that area is mostly maternal. The males are only there for mating, and they live in these beautiful family groups where the mothers and the grandmothers raise and nurse their calves together.
Then there’s the adventure part of it, which sort of surprised me. I’ve done a whale story once, but we didn’t have this experience where you show up and you’re thinking, “OK, there’s this country that’s got this population of whales that are there but it actually ended up being really hard to find the whale.” That’s the catch of doing wildlife stories. They’re not always right there when you need them to be! But we eventually found some, and it was sort of like a SEAL Team Six quick jump off the back of a moving boat. You’re in 8,000-foot deep water and there you are, right there face to face with this whale the size of a school bus, and I’m trying to figure out how to backpedal in these fins if I don’t even know how to snorkel! (laughter)
What qualities do you bring to the broadcast that are perhaps different from those of your on-air colleagues and predecessors?
I’ve been doing this a while now, and I still feel very much like the kid from the East Bay, San Francisco Bay Area, whose parents didn’t have a lot of money, ended up at what I thought was my dream job—my hometown paper, the San Francisco Chronicle—and everything since then has just been unexpected and really surprising.
With me at work, you get what you get. That’s just who I am, for better or worse.
I think back to that moment–which you’ll probably remember–in the Rose Garden with Trump, where we went head to head, and he said that “I wasn’t thinking,” and I sort of had my head kicked back and had a tone of my voice. I said, “Excuse me?” My husband said, “Wow, the world really got to see what you’re really like when I forget to get the groceries or didn’t clean.” You’re going to get what you get with me, and I think I’m proud of that. I haven’t figured out a TV persona. You’re getting the kid from Richmond, Calif., who ended up landing this amazing job.